Emergencies/Illness Health Issues

Case Study: Botulism

Spring is the time of year when we start to hear about birds getting into things that may cause troubling symptoms, including paralysis. Lots of folks’ go-to would be to assume it was related to Marek’s Disease or a vitamin deficiency, but another potential diagnosis could be botulism, a life-threatening condition seen in poultry and waterfowl. 

Botulism (food poisoning) occurs when birds eat food or drink water containing botulism toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria are commonly found in the soil, untreated water, rotting vegetation, food or carcasses where they produce a very potent toxin. It can also be consumed by, and concentrated in, maggots. The ingested toxin affects the nervous system by binding to the nerve endings, causing weakness and paralysis. Botulism tends to be more common in the rainy season, because birds are more likely to have access to wet, decomposing feed.

It often affects several flock mates, usually the most dominant ones, which are the most likely birds to eat first. The onset and progression of symptoms varies, depending on the amount of the toxin ingested and the form of the disease. Signs develop within 1-17 days after exposure.

This is the story of Jocelyn’s pullet and her near brush with death.

Legbar pullet, 6 months old

Day 1: When I let my flock out of the coop in the morning I noticed my Legbar pullet was missing. She was inside just sitting there, looking at me. She hadn’t been coming out of the coop when I opened it in the morning so I had been carrying her out. She seemed weak and unaware, but could walk and kind of run.

I hadn’t seen her eat or drink in two days. I took her to the feed dish and she just stood there, then fell over and couldn’t stand properly. I immediately knew something was wrong. I brought her inside for evaluation and started Googling potential causes for her illness.

Her symptoms fit the description for botulism – particularly neck paralysis and green poop. It has a high fatality rate because it can kill a bird by paralyzing the muscles required for eating, drinking and breathing.

I set her up in my kitchen in a plastic bin with a cozy bed and drinking water containing vitamins and electrolytes. I had to call three stores to locate activated charcoal, the recommended antidote to botulism. By the time I was able to purchase it her legs and wings were both paralyzed and her neck was turning in circles.

I put one teaspoon of charcoal in 8 ounces of water and gave it to her orally with a syringe twice a day for two days. She refused to eat so I focused on keeping her hydrated. The way she was looking and acting I was scared she was going to die any minute. When I woke up in the morning I had my husband go check on her because I didn’t want to find her dead.

I looked for the source of her illness and couldn’t find anything obvious. She was the only one in my flock that presented with those symptoms.

Week 2: After the first week she was walking, although not perfectly, but it was a start. She was making little chicken noises, which meant her lungs were fine.

A couple of days later she was fine to go outside.

I’ve been raising, breeding, showing, and selling chickens all 24 years of my entire life. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two, but never did I think I was going have this kind of success.

I’ve stitched crops and vents; brought a rooster back to life from being frozen solid under 3’ of snow; hand raised a one legged turkey inside my house; and even been certified as a tester for a few poultry diseases, but I’ve never brought a chicken back from the brink of death – until now.

I’m so proud of myself for not giving up.

Thanks to Jocelyn Carruthers for sharing her story and photos, used with permission.

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